In the middle of the night on Sunday, September 26th, torrential rains due to Hurricane Matthew caused the two rivers that surround this little community to flood. One women tells of lifting her three-month old baby over her head, arms fully extended, as she struggled to keep her own head over water. Others tell of scrambling onto their shaky roofs in the pitch black night by light of cheap cell phone, watching the waters rush by.
These humble homes—shacks by any other name, pieced together with found and collected bits of corrugated tin, wood, thick, heavy sticks, cardboard, mud, plastic tarp—are constructed on packed dirt, and interiors of homes and the narrow roads that run through the community turn immediately to mud in heavy rain. Disease, manifested by mosquitoes and white mold that grows everywhere in the dampness, accompanied by threats of continued rains and further flooding that keep coastal El Salvador on orange alert, force the community out. There is no formal shelter nearby, and so, as so many other Salvadoran communities do in times of crisis, the community seeks refugee in the nearest primary school.
A local grassroots organization is able to negotiate with the local government and international cooperation agencies for food—eggs, beans, tortillas, vegetable oil, and salt for three meals a day, along with the five-pound tank of gas to cook it all; drinking water—in the form of half-liter plastic bags, which add the taste of dirt and plastic to the warm water; and four-inch thick foam mattresses for sleeping. A local health promoter accompanies the children of the shelter—along with the parents and elderly who don’t have other daytime commitments—in activities to keep them distracted and entertained, playing games, drawing, telling stories, and making full use of the school’s limited playground equipment. Women rotate through kitchen duty, sweating over a huge pot of beans and slapping the tortillas onto the hot plancha.
While there is a lot of activity in this little school-turned-shelter, there is a sense of deep exhaustion and worry among its temporary residents. Carved into the faces of the elderly and easily notable in the postures of the many mothers are the struggles that this community has faced since the flooding, and the uncertainty of what the future may hold.
Two days into the evacuation, the septic tank underneath the school’s bathrooms burst, not only rendering the only available toilets inoperable, but overwhelming the small compound with the stench of human waste for days.
To make matters worse: The school is located in a community with its own water system, and the community pays to maintain it. Seeing this invasion of outsiders in their school—one hundred people means one hundred showers, hundreds of plates and forks to be cleaned, countless diapers and shirts that need washing—the community shuts off the school’s water supply. In the heat of El Salvador, and the dust left by a tropical storm followed by days of dry weather and wind, water is not a luxury.
So people are forced to return to the very river that forced them from their homes in search of water. A forty minute trek from the school, women and children walk to clean their bodies, their dishes, their clothes, and to haul water back to the shelter for use later in the day.
And, to laugh and splash a little, too, under the hot afternoon sun. A pair of grandmothers invited us to jump in with them and enjoy the cool water, clothes and all.
When communities are forced to evacuate because of flooding in El Salvador, it is not uncommon for the women, children and elderly to seek shelter, leaving the men behind to watch over homes and belongings. In unattended homes, belongings have a tendency to disappear. In Bendición de Dios’ case, the situation was much more serious. After two days in the shelter, a few men returned to the community to find that people had been stealing pieces of their homes—the valuable corrugated tin used to build. The number of shelter residents immediately dropped from over one hundred to around seventy, as men from each household returned to watch over their homes, built with no small amount of blood, sweat, and heart.
And as if this all were not enough. On the day I arrived to visit, led through the community by Mauricio, rural farmer, proud father of three young girls, the community took up the task that the looters had begun—taking apart their homes, piece by piece.
When Hurricane Matthew hit, the community was recently established. Squatting on nearby land, when a high-talking woman in a business suit came to offer land titles at an affordable monthly price, Bendición de Dios was born.
It is not in all communities in El Salvador where you see flowers, potted plants, lush green vegetation everywhere. Not all communities have sufficient sense of permanence, the time or ability to see beyond fulfilling today’s needs, or the sense of self-worth or pride to plant things simply for beauty. Despite their many struggles and limitations, Bendición de Dios is not one of these communities. Every home is surrounded by beautiful, healthy tropical flowers, and the area surrounding the homes, closer to the river’s edge, is full of banana and papaya trees and vines once full of squash, leafy greens and green beans. This community had put work into building homes, not just houses, and creating community, achieving a lot with very little. They had put down roots, and were here to stay.
In the aftermath of this latest storm, the community has come to find that the land they purchased is owned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle, which named it a Natural Reserve years ago. With this most recent storm, the land has been declared uninhabitable, due to its location between two flood-prone rivers. The sale of this land to the community was completely illegal, and although people have been paying out of their meager earnings every month, they have absolutely no right to the land they have built their homes on.
And so, they will start over. With no way of getting back the hundreds of dollars they invested in the land they thought they were legitimately buying, the families of Bendición de Dios will pack up all of their belongings, disassemble their homes, and move on. To higher ground, where they won’t face flooding next rainy season. Hopefully, to land that enables them to connect to running water and electricity. To land not already owned by an unbending private owner or corrupt government agency. A tall order for El Salvador.
But it seems that no obstacle is too great for people who have already overcome so much. If the hibiscus plants can flower elsewhere, maybe the families and community can, too.